Germany tightens rape law in wake of Cologne assaults
A protester holds a sign reading "Sexual harassment against women will not be tolerated" during a demonstration outside Cologne Cathedral in January 2016 (AFP Photo/Roberto Pfeil)

The German government on Wednesday approved a tightening of the country's rape law to cover cases in which a victim withheld consent but did not physically fight back.

Chancellor Angela Merkel's cabinet signed off on the measure, which still requires parliamentary approval, after a rash of sexual assaults in crowds on New Year's Eve in the western city of Cologne drew intense media coverage.

Justice Minister Heiko Maas called the draft law "an important step toward strengthening sexual self-determination", noting that there were "unacceptable gaps in protection" against sexual coercion and assault under German law.

"It is high time that changes," he said in a statement.

"We owe that to the victims."

Currently, rape victims in Germany must not only demonstrate that they verbally declined sex but that they physically resisted against their assailant.

Maas said the new legislation would now cover "the actual situations in which most attacks occur".

These include cases in which the victim was taken by surprise, intimidated or was threatened with other violence, for example in an abusive relationship.

Hundreds of women reported sexual attacks and robberies in Cologne on New Year's Eve in attacks blamed on Arab and North African men.

The city's police chief conceded that most perpetrators may never be caught over the spate of assaults, which ranged from groping to rapes, that inflamed public debate about a record influx of refugees and migrants.

The cases also revived calls to provide more legal protection to victims of sexual assault in Germany, where critics say the standard of proof in excessively high.